Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Birmingham City Council budget 2014 workshop

Yesterday I went to an invitation-only workshop on the 2014 BCC budget at the new library. It was run by BMG Research (they even privatise consultations to some extent), but at least that meant we didn't have to listen to Albert Bore pontificating. I wasn't involved in last year's consultations, but I've heard dire tales of his taking up an hour and a quarter out of a two-hour session. Thirty-one people were invited, and i believe they expected about twenty to turn up. In the event, all thirty-one were there. This may indicate the strength of feeling about the cuts.

We had to discuss a series of pretty general questions like '[Should the Council] target services for those most in need, but reduce them for others?' We then voted on a menu of options, usually support/support to some extent/do not support. We did this on the basis of inadequate information; the budget had only been published shortly before the meeting, and fact sheets weren't given out until after it finished. Part of the three hours was spent in smaller groups which could discuss issues in more detail.

I don't know what the Council hopes to gain from the exercise, but as a consultation it was of limited value, ans given the local Labour Group's record, I imagine decisions have already been made. Last year's consultation was completely ignored, and I anticipate that this one will be as well. In many ways we were at loggerheads with what the council is trying to do to the city.

Results will apparently be posted in a couple of weeks, but people consistently voted against cuts. A real conflict was apparent over the idea of volunteers stepping in to replace Council services. Several participants were already involved in volunteering. The unfortunate woman running that part of the meeting tried very hard to get us to talk about how volunteers could cope, but eventually had to give up after being told repeatedly that it was unworkable. Working together across services got a better reception, and there were mixed feelings about district committees.

As the meeting progressed, participants became steadily more vocal, especially in the smaller groups. I think we had a consensus that further cuts aren't wanted, that volunteers cannot replace services, and that the situation isn't the Council's fault. If the government addressed the problem of tax evasion, and then cuts might not be necessary.  If the government hopes they can unload cuts onto councils, and watch them take the blame, or BCC thinks it can do the same with district committees, they may be disappointed.

Part of the problem, of course, is that way BCC has given in without a fight. It could have done great things to marshal opposition to the government, but it hasn't the courage of a mouse. Albert Bore's complaints about Pickles in the Guardian are too little and too late. Councillors seem to see themselves as managers rather than people elected to represent the people, and ensure the best possible deal for them. The likes of the Clay Cross councillors who fought a lengthy battle against the Housing Finance Act 1972, which was repealed in 1975, are nowhere to be seen. In the face of a government like this one, a managerial approach will go nowhere.

I suppose the workshop had value in indicating the mood music, if anyone was listening. The main lesson I've picked up from it all is the importance of standing people against the current Councillors. If you take the fight to the enemy, then you never know. You might even win.

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